Buried Treasures

Joel Noah

By Judi Leff

I am Judi Leff, the volunteer historian, and member of the Temple Emanu-El Cemetery Committee and the Joint Management Committee for the Jewish Cemeteries in Colma.  This will be the first of what I hope will be a regular feature on the website.

This summer, we had a wonderful day of tours for folks interested in getting to know more about our cemetery history, and what I call our Buried Treasures.  There are a trove of fabulous stories about folks in our cemeteries, both famous and barely known.  These are stories and people I have gotten to know through my interest in the history of Bay Area synagogues.  Their impact on both the Jewish and civic communities cannot be overstated.


I feel strongly that spending time getting to know the stories of our buried treasures provides so many opportunities to acknowledge the impact and feel gratitude to those who came before us.  It also inspires me to wonder what we might want our legacies to be in the future.


To this end, I would like to regularly highlight some of our special buried treasures.

This month I would like to illuminate someone grand in both spirit and size: Joel Noah who hailed from England, of Hungarian parentage.  At a time when the average male was 5’6″ and 150 pounds, Joel Noah was a towering 6’3″ and 300 lbs!  Moving his clothing business to San Francisco from Rochester, New York in 1849, Joel’s great passion was his membership in the Masonic Lodge.  He served as “tiler or tyler” for several lodges. A tyler is responsible for maintaining the security and privacy of the lodge’s meetings. I can’t imagine anybody every challenged him.


Joel Noah was present at the first 1849 High Holy Day services, held in Lewis Franklin’s tent store, somewhere near Montgomery and Jackson Sts.  My favorite story about Joel is that in 1852, he miscalculated the timing of Yom Kippur, going off for fasting and prayer.  When he returned, he discovered he was off by a day, and he just added another 24 hours of his pious activities.


Joel apparently could be found at the head of most Masonic parades, holding the sword and sash of his important office.  He loved being tiler so much that he listed himself thusly in directories, despite his success as a clothing merchant (even after being burned out of business six times!)


Joel lived to be 75 years old, but did not marry or have children.  He was buried in Hills of Eternity Cemetery on August 28, 1883. As we prepare for the upcoming High Holy Days, I like to reflect on the larger than life enthusiasm of Jewish 49er Joel Noah.


*Acknowledgements to Norton B. Stern (Editor, Western States Jewish Historical Quarterly) for his 1983 Jewish Bulletin article on Joel Noah